This week, for the second installment of my 3-part series on flashback, we’re going to talk a little about how we give our characters backstory. (Click here to read Part 1: Flashbacks: Why Use Them?) The two main tools at our disposal as authors are flashback and memory. Both involve a character revisiting a past event, but there are some key differences between the two, mostly having to do with execution.
Before we go any further, let’s define our terms.
A memory is a recollection of a past event that a character experiences in the present moment. It is typically triggered by something in the present that reminds the character of the past, such as a smell, sound, or visual cue. Memories are usually brief and fleeting, and they can be used to reveal information about a character’s past or to show how the past is still influencing the present.
On the other hand, a flashback is more extended and immersive. A flashback is typically triggered by something in the present that reminds the character of the past, but instead of a brief memory, the reader is shown the event as if it were happening in real time. Flashbacks can be used to reveal important information about a character’s past, to create tension and suspense, or to add depth and complexity to the story.
A key difference between flashbacks and memories is the level of immediacy. A memory is usually experienced by the character in the present moment, whereas a flashback takes the character (and the reader) out of the present and into the past. This can create a shift in the narrative tone and pacing, as well as a shift in the character’s perspective and emotional state.
It’s also worth noting that flashbacks are often more structured than memories. A flashback typically has a beginning, middle, and end, and it follows a clear narrative arc. Memories, on the other hand, can be more free-form and unstructured, and they may not necessarily have a clear narrative arc.
Which to use
When to use a memory versus a flashback really depends on what you’re trying to achieve in the story. If you just need a quick way to reveal some information about a character’s past, a memory may be sufficient. However, if you want to fully immerse the reader in a past event and show how it’s still influencing the present, a flashback may be more appropriate.
While both memories and flashbacks involve revisiting past events, they differ in terms of their length, immediacy, and narrative structure. Both techniques can be useful in fiction writing, depending on what you’re trying to achieve with your story.
Next week we’ll talk about more of the nuts and bolts of actually writing flashbacks (and memories). Stay tuned…
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